Ed Jacobs rounds up the week’s news from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus the week’s local council by-election results.
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Reflecting on the budget, the Daily Record this week spoke for many in Scotland, nay the whole of Britain, in its editorial:
Cheered on by a braying mob of Tory backbenchers and their Lib Dem stooges, Gideon George Osborne delivered a budget so shamefully regressive as to be genuinely breathtaking.
Breathtaking for all the wrong reasons, of course. Breathtakingly unfair. Breathtakingly disgraceful. It will go down in history as an appalling piece of political deceit.
Osborne thought that unveiling a £5.30 increase in the state pension would distract attention from an assault on the modest incomes of pensioners with a little bit more cash than others. He was wrong.
The truth of the budget is that millions of people coming up to retirement now face being robbed of more than £300 a year that rightfully should be theirs.
Osborne is meant to be the political strategist of his generation. Yesterday, he played the worst poker hand in the history of budget speeches.
He put the dead man’s hand on to the table – two aces and two eights. The two aces meant the lowering of the 50p tax rate for the super-rich and the raising of the personal tax allowance to £9,205. Osborne’s two eights were the raid on pensioners and his refusal to back away from a fuel tax rise that will hit hard-pressed motorists.
Low and middle-income workers, those hit hardest by cuts in public services and a real fall in wages, will see the chancellor’s card hand for what it is – a bluff.
He said it was a budget that “supports working families” and “unashamedly backs business”. It was unashamed all right. It was a budget that benefits mostly those at the top of the pile and fails to kickstart the stalled economy.
• Budget 2012: Some welcome news for cities, but questions remain about jobs and growth Rachel Smith, Centre for Cities
• Budget 2012: Osborne hasn’t done enough to help unemployed in the north Katie Schmuecker, IPPR North
• Rangers: How journalists and administrators failed the fans Stephen Henderson
• Tories in Scotland: A tale of two parties Ed Jacobs
It’s a verdict backed up by today’s Mail on Sunday/Survation poll (xls), which gives Labour an 8-point lead over the Tories, 39.2% to 31.3%, with the Liberal Democrats on 10.9%; even more significantly perhaps, the poll also found that, when asked “who do you trust most on the economy”, Ed Balls leads George Osborne, 29% to 28%.
And for a reminder of the findings of our own budget survey, see here.
Ulster Unionist Party leadership candidate Mike Nesbitt ruffled some feathers this week as he called for a referendum on whether the people of Northern Ireland wanted to see the introduction of a formal opposition at Stormont.
He used an interview with last week’s Sunday Politics in Northern Ireland to argue “significant changes” since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement warranted such a vote.
However his rival for the post, John McAllister, made clear his support for a voluntary, unilateral move to opposition, telling the same programme:
“We will be an opposition and hold this administration to account and provide the people of Northern Ireland an alternative at the next assembly elections. It is actually healthy to have an opposition, every type of democratic system in the world has an opposition or checks and balances on power and that’s what we need.”
The suggestion of a referendum received short shrift from the first and deputy first minister.
Speaking from a trip to Washington, Peter Robinson argued:
“I have an election mandate. We went to the people, we told them the changes that we wanted to make. We don’t need any referendum; (voters) have already told us what changes they want.”
Martin McGuinness, meanwhile, said of the call:
“I think such a proposal would be treated with the gravest suspicion within the broad nationalist and republican community. I think people would see it as an attempt by someone who is challenging for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party to turn the clock back.”
Elsewhere, following a series of damaging headlines about the performance of Northern Ireland’s Accident and Emergency departments, health minister Edwin Poots announced the establishment of an action group to improve the standard of care at emergency departments across Northern Ireland.
Speaking to delegates at the Ward Sister Conference, Poots explained:
“I will not accept poor or sub-standard services in our hospitals. The proposals in the Transforming Your Care report (pdf) represent a radical change to how we currently deliver health services.
“However providing safe and effective services means looking to the here and now, as well as the future and we need to ensure that the services that are currently being delivered serve all of our citizens well.
“I want to see a significant improvement in the performance of emergency departments across Northern Ireland and that can only be achieved through a broad approach, involving all areas of the health service.”
“I want to know that all parts of the HSC are applying known, evidence-based good practice and I have asked for a robust plan of action to secure immediate improvement. I want to be assured that the agreed actions represent the most effective interventions in respect of optimising unscheduled care.
“I will expect 12-hour breaches to occur only in the rarest of circumstances. And this does not mean that 11 hours is acceptable – I also expect to see the vast majority of patients helped much more quickly, through much better performance against the target that 95% of patients should be admitted or discharged within four hours.”
There was criticism of the Welsh government as it announced an apparent u-turn on the use of badger culling to combat TB in cattle within the Intensive Action Area (IAA).
Outlining his case, environment minister John Griffiths told the Assembly:
“This has been a difficult decision to take. In making it, I have considered the likely benefits that vaccination or culling could have. Any decision to cull would need to be justified on the basis that it would be necessary to eliminate or substantially reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle.
“I have considered the evidence provided to me, including scientific and legal advice and have noted the advice on potential benefit that might be obtained by vaccination or culling. At present I am not satisfied that a cull of badgers would be necessary to bring about a substantial reduction in cases of TB in cattle.”
In a joint letter to the minister on the issue, Johnny Homfray, chairman of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Emyr Jones, president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales, and Ed Bailey, president of NFU Cymru, argued:
“As you know, for almost three years, farmers in the Intensive Action Area have engaged fully with all relevant government bodies in undertaking a broad range of costly additional measures aimed at reducing the risk of cattle-to-cattle and badger-to-cattle transmission.
“It is clear from the number of cattle herds that remain under restrictions that these measures alone will not get on top of and ultimately eradicate bTB from an area of Wales where we know both badgers and cattle are suffering from this debilitating disease. Decisive action must be taken to tackle the wildlife reservoir which has been shown to exist in the area.
“There has been much discussion of bTB vaccination for badgers. Whilst we fully support the development of vaccines for badgers and cattle and we believe that they will have a role to play in the long term eradication of disease from Wales, researchers have made it clear that significant ambiguity exists regarding the impact of such a policy.
“Thus, while we all would wish to see the implementation of a vaccination policy which has been shown to be effective in the field, such a policy does not exist, and the only evidence we have suggests that vaccination would be less effective than other approaches.”
Wales’s Commissioner for Older People, meanwhile, voiced her concerns about George Osborne’s decision in the budget to freeze the tax allowance for pensioners.
Outlining her concerns, Ruth Marks noted:
“Older people in Wales who have worked hard to save for their retirement could be significantly worse off under this proposal paying £259 more in tax a year on an income as low as £10,500. Older people regularly tell me that they are struggling to pay their bills and to keep warm living on a fixed income, in these already difficult economic times.
“Many older people will worry about the potential loss of income, which will leave them even more exposed to future increases in food and fuel costs. Although the plans to introduce a flat rate pension of £140 per week are to be welcomed, it is disappointing that this will not be introduced until 2016, meaning that any benefits will not be felt immediately.
“We recognise that people are living longer and we are living in an ageing society. We hope that the chancellor’s announcement of the ‘automatic review’ into increasing the state pension age will give people greater choice and control over their working lives and that individual circumstances will be reflected.”
Following the announcement of the Scottish and UK governments striking of a deal over the taxation powers to be handed to Holyrood under the terms of the Scotland bill, the BBC’s political editor in Scotland argued it had boosted Michael Moore’s position as Scottish Secretary.
Giving his analysis of the situation, Brian Taylor observed:
So what was the fuss all about? Over the Scotland bill, that is. From apocalyptic conflict, we have arrived at a late night deal to implement the provisions to enhance Holyrood’s powers, including tax powers. Politically, two interpretations are simultaneously available. The Scottish secretary Michael Moore needed this bill to reinforce his clout within the UK coalition.
If it had failed, he would have looked weak, unable to advance negotiations with the Scottish government, unable to contain the challenge mounted by Alex Salmond and his ministers. Now his status is enhanced. He has secured the bill with relatively few concessions – and none of the big ticket demands pressed by the Scottish government such as the devolution of corporation tax.
He is entitled to feel quietly pleased with his endeavours and those of his team. Meanwhile, it is left to Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, to lampoon the SNP approach to the bill, to say that their demands simply crumpled under scrutiny.
Equally, however, the political ground has shifted. The Calman Commission report, the progenitor of this bill, is no longer the prime Unionist offer as it was at the time of publication. The talk now is of further powers, possibly Devo Plus or Max.
The SNP calculation, thereby, is that the real fight is now on that new ground. It is independence versus the new Unionist position. If they can contrive it, it will be independence versus Westminster Conservative rule.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, meanwhile, prepared to launch a new campaign to save the union at the Scottish Conservative Conference – an event overshadowed by a former Conservative Cabinet ministers claims that the pro-independence campaign was simply anti-English.
John Redwood angered many by blogging:
“One of the great ironies of the Scottish “independence” movement is it is not truly an independence movement at all. It is a dependence movement, wishing to shift Scotland to Brussels control directly.
“It is an anti English movement more than it is an independence movement.”
There were four by-elections this week:
• Waltham Cross Division, Herts County Council: Con hold.
– Con 1389 (56.4%, +14.6); Lab 837 (34%, +6.9); UKIP 159 (6.5%, +6.5); LD 76 (3.1%, -10.5). Swing of 3.9% from Lab to Con since 2009.
• St Bartholomews Ward, Tendring District Council: Holland-on-Sea Residents Association hold.
– RA 1087 (72.7%, +0.9); Con 289 (19.3%, -8.9); Lab 120 (8%, +8). Swing of 4.9% from Con to RA since 2011.
• Tavistock North Ward, West Devon District Council: Ind gain from Con.
– Ind 407 (35.5%, +8.3); Con 256 (22.3%, -10.6); LD 225 (19.6%, -3.2); Lab 125 (10.9%, -6.2); UKIP 78 (6.8%, +6.8), Ind 57 (5%, +5). Swing of 9.5% from Con to Ind since 2011.
• Dollis Hill Ward, London Borough of Brent: LD hold.
– LD 1205 (46.5%, +6.6); Lab 1168 (45.1%, +7.4); Con 140 (5.4%, -12.9); Green 79 (3%, -1.2). Swing of 0.4% from LD to Lab since 2010.